Colleen Con­way-Welch

Push­ing bound­aries and bend­ing the rules: Nurs­ing school dean knew how to get things done

Modern Healthcare - - NEWS - By David Royse

In her long ca­reer in nurs­ing, Colleen Con­way-Welch fig­ured out some­times it’s good to bend the rules a bit. She first re­al­ized that early in her ca­reer, as she cared for a pa­tient near­ing death.

“She had a York­shire ter­rier she just adored,” Con­way-Welch re­called. “She just wanted to see that lit­tle dog be­fore she died.”

Dogs, how­ever, weren’t al­lowed in the hos­pi­tal. But that rule in­ter­fered with Con­way-Welch’s idea of how best to care for her pa­tient, so she found a way around it. She

“I re­ally used the phi­los­o­phy that if you can stand the con­se­quences, take the risk.”

“She’s not one of these folks who had to ask per­mis­sion to do some­thing. She just plowed right through. If you ask per­mis­sion, you’re go­ing to wait a long time.” Bon­nie Pilon For­mer se­nior as­so­ciate dean at Van­der­bilt

brought the dog up to the fire exit in a small bas­ket, al­low­ing a re­union be­tween the dy­ing woman and the dog she wanted to tell good­bye.

“I re­al­ized what I did was re­ally the essence of nurs­ing,” Con­way-Welch said. “Af­ter­wards, she was peace­ful. That’s what nurses do. They take care of the needs of pa­tients . . . not only the phys­i­cal but the psy­cho­log­i­cal and even the spir­i­tual. We ad­dress ev­ery as­pect of care.”

That would be a theme for Con­way-Welch through­out her ca­reer—ad­vo­cat­ing for nurses to do more, to learn more, to push bound­aries to make sure pa­tients are cared for.

And that sense of get­ting things done served Con­wayWelch as she went from nurs­ing in the field to a long, suc­cess­ful ten­ure as dean of the Van­der­bilt Univer­sity School of Nurs­ing. Con­way-Welch res­cued a fi­nan­cially strug­gling school and used com­mon sense, charm, and some ma­neu­ver­ing around the rules to make a long-last­ing dif­fer­ence in the nurs­ing pro­fes­sion, in the care of peo­ple in Van­der­bilt’s home city of Nashville and in nurs­ing ed­u­ca­tion.

“She’s not one of these folks who had to ask per­mis­sion to do some­thing,” said Bon­nie Pilon, who was hired by Con­way-Welch at Van­der­bilt and spent 15 years as se­nior as­so­ciate dean at the school. “She just plowed right through. I don’t think it was a bad way to go. If you ask per­mis­sion, you’re go­ing to wait a long time.”

Con­way-Welch, 72, says, tech­ni­cally, she wasn’t so much a rule-breaker as some­one who found ways around rules when needed. “Let’s say, I oc­ca­sion­ally bent the rules,” she said. “She would see bar­ri­ers, and she would look at those bar­ri­ers and see what needed to be done,” said Linda Nor­man, who fol­lowed Con­way-Welch as dean at Van­der­bilt. “She was quick to find the bar­rier and then get it changed.”

For her ac­com­plish­ments in nurs­ing and nurs­ing ed­u­ca­tion Con­way-Welch is be­ing in­ducted into the Health Care Hall of Fame.

Be­ing un­afraid to stick her neck out put Con­wayWelch on the fore­front of emerg­ing health­care is­sues— from her ar­dent sup­port for ex­pand­ing the scope of prac­tice for nurses so they can pro­vide more pri­mary care to her cham­pi­oning the no­tion that health­care clin­ics for the poor could be fi­nan­cially vi­able. And it cer­tainly in­cluded her early push for AIDS care and re­search.

In the 1980s, with a stigma still sur­round­ing the new AIDS cri­sis, Nashville had a higher than typ­i­cal num­ber of cases. Even­tu­ally, Van­der­bilt would re­cruit a top AIDS spe­cial­ist, Dr. Stephen Raf­fanti, and col­lab­o­rated with him on a treat­ment cen­ter. But at the time, push­ing the univer­sity to em­brace re­search and treat­ment of the dis­ease was con­tro­ver­sial, given how much was un­known about HIV and AIDS.

“She stuck up a poster, and ev­ery­one knew she was pro HIV re­search,” Pilon said of Con­way-Welch. “She wasn’t afraid, po­lit­i­cally or clin­i­cally, to do that.”

Con­way-Welch, who served on an AIDS task force cre­ated by Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan, looked the same way at

“Look at the worst thing that could hap­pen to you, and then as­sess if you can man­age it. Then go ahead. Don’t be afraid to take risks.” Colleen Con­way-Welch

be­ing out in front on is­sues and prob­lems that might need some rule-bend­ing.

“I re­ally used the phi­los­o­phy that if you can stand the con­se­quences, take the risk,” she said.

And that idea is one of the main things she wants new nurses to learn.

“Look at the worst thing that could hap­pen to you, and then as­sess if you can man­age it,” Con­way-Welch said. “Then go ahead. Don’t be afraid to take risks.”

She also be­lieves in a nurs­ing work­force that is more broadly ed­u­cated—some­thing she pushed at Van­der­bilt, where she cre­ated an ac­cel­er­ated pro­gram to bring in new nurses who were ed­u­cated first in other fields, be­cause, she be­lieved, they brought some­thing ex­tra to their pro­fes­sion.

Con­way-Welch also used a lit­tle bit of charm, and moved com­fort­ably in the cir­cles of donors and politi­cians that a dean of a ma­jor nurs­ing school must court.

One of the first ma­jor donors she ap­proached af­ter be­ing named dean, Nashville busi­ness­man Ted Welch, was so charmed that he ended up mar­ry­ing her. He was also a ma­jor Repub­li­can fundraiser, and the two were friendly with big-time play­ers in Ten­nessee and na­tional pol­i­tics.

Con­way-Welch was good at that too. “She could work a room,” Pilon noted.

But de­spite her hus­band’s Repub­li­can ties, Con­way-Welch worked both sides of the aisle. She had a good re­la­tion­ship with two- term Demo­cratic Ten­nessee Gov. Ned McWherter.

“McWherter was one of her best pals,” Pilon said. “That made her very ef­fec­tive for a long time. She had vi­sion, she un­der­stood strat­egy re­ally well, and un­der­stood sources of power.”

In re­tire­ment, Con­way-Welch is check­ing off a bucket list that in­cludes a re­cent trip to Is­rael and an up­com­ing trek to Chile. And she’s still bend­ing the rules for what ev­ery­body says 70-some­things should be do­ing in re­tire­ment.

“Af­ter that,” she said, “I’m go­ing to sky­dive.”

Con­way-Welch was in­volved in many con­struc­tion and ren­o­va­tion projects dur­ing her ten­ure. Here she par­tic­i­pates in ground­break­ing for the Pa­tri­cia Cham­pion Frist Hall at Van­der­bilt’s School of Nurs­ing in 2007.

Con­way-Welch tes­ti­fies at a 2008 hear­ing in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., on health­care or­ga­ni­za­tions’ pre­pared­ness for largescale dis­as­ters. She’s been a fre­quent speaker at the state and na­tional lev­els.

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